Culture in Classical Sparta

Learning Objective

  • Understand the key characteristics of Sparta’s society

Key Points

  • Sparta was an oligarchic city-state, ruled by two hereditary kings equal in authority.
  • Spartan society was largely structured around the military, and around military training.
  • Inhabitants were classified as Spartiates (Spartan citizens, who enjoyed full rights), Mothakes (non-Spartan, free men raised as Spartans), Perioikoi (free, but non-citizen inhabitants), and Helots (state-owned serfs, part of the enslaved non-Spartan, local population).
  • Spartiates began military training at the age of seven.
  • At the age of 20, Spartiates were initiated into full citizenship and joined a syssitia.
  • Helots were granted many privileges, in comparison to enslaved populations in other Greek city-states.
  • The Helot population outnumbered the Spartiate population, and grew over time, causing societal tensions.
  • Female Spartans enjoyed status, power, and respect that was unequaled in the rest of the classical world.



Ephors were ancient Spartan officials who shared power with the hereditary kings. Five individuals were elected annually to swear on behalf of the city, whereas kings served for a lifetime and swore only on their own behalf.


The gerousia were a council of Spartan elders comprised of men over the age of 60, who were elected for life, and usually were members of one of the two kings’ households.


A famous ancient sanctuary that served as the seat of an oracle, who consulted on important decisions throughout the ancient classical world.

The Spartan Political System

Sparta functioned under an oligarchy. The state was ruled by two hereditary kings of the Agiad and Eurypontid families, both supposedly descendants of Heracles, and equal in authority so that one could not act against the power and political enactments of his colleague. The duties of the kings were religious, judicial, and military in nature. They were the chief priests of the state, and maintained contact with Delphi, the sanctuary that exercised great authority in Spartan politics.

By 450 BCE, the kings’ judicial authority was restricted to cases dealing with heiresses, adoptions, and public roads. Over time, royal prerogatives were curtailed further until, aside from their service as military generals, the kings became mere figureheads. For example, from the time of the Greco-Persian Wars, the kings lost the right to declare war and were shadowed in the field by two officials, known as ephors. The ephors also supplanted the kings’ leadership in the realm of foreign policy. Civil and criminal cases were also decided by ephors, as well as a council of 28 elders over the age of 60, called the gerousia. The gerousia were elected for life, and usually were members of one of the two kings’ households. The gerousia discussed high state policy decisions, then proposed action alternatives to the damos—a collective body of Spartan citizenry, who would then select one of the options by voting.

Spartan Citizenship

Unique in ancient Greece for its social system, Spartan society was completely focused on military training and excellence. Its inhabitants were classified as Spartiates (Spartan citizens, who enjoyed full rights), Mothakes (non-Spartan, free men raised as Spartans), Perioikoi (free, but non-citizen inhabitants), and Helots (state-owned serfs, part of the enslaved, non-Spartan, local population).


Structure of Spartan society. Spartan society was highly regimented, with a clearly delineated class system. 

Male Spartans began military training at age seven. The training was designed to encourage discipline and physical toughness, as well as emphasize the importance of the Spartan state. Typically only men who were to become Spartiates underwent military training, although two exceptions existed to this rule. Trophimoi, or “foster sons,” from other Greek city-states were allowed to attend training as foreign students. For example, the Athenian general Xenophon sent his two sons to Sparta as trophimoi. Additionally, sons of a Helot could enroll as a syntrophos if a Spartiate formally adopted him and paid his way. If a syntrophos did exceptionally well in training, he could be sponsored to become a Spartiate. Likewise, if a Spartan could not afford to pay the expenses associated with military training, they potentially could lose their right to citizenship.

Boys who underwent training lived in communal messes and, according to Xenophon, whose sons attended the agoge, the boys were fed “just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough.” Besides physical and weapons training, boys studied reading, writing, music, and dancing. Special punishments were imposed if boys failed to answer questions sufficiently laconically (i.e., briefly and wittily).

At age 20, the Spartan citizen began his membership in one of the syssitia (dining messes or clubs), which were composed of about 15 members each, and were compulsory. Here each group learned how to bond and rely on one another. The Spartans were not eligible for election to public office until the age of 30. Only native Spartans were considered full citizens, and were obliged to undergo military training as prescribed by law, as well as participate in, and contribute financially to, one of the syssitia.


Spartiates were actually a minority within Sparta, and Helots made up the largest class of inhabitants of the city-state. Helots were originally free Greeks that the Spartans had defeated in battle, and subsequently enslaved. In contrast to populations conquered by other Greek cities, the male Helot population was not exterminated, and women and children were not treated as chattel. Instead, Helots were given a subordinate position within Spartan society more comparable to the serfs of medieval Europe. Although Helots did not have voting rights, they otherwise enjoyed a relatively privileged position, in comparison to slave populations in other Greek city-states.

The Spartan poet, Tyrtaios, gives account that Helots were permitted to marry and retain half the fruits of their labor. They were also allowed religious freedoms and could own a limited amount of personal property. Up to 6,000 Helots even accumulated enough wealth to buy their own freedom in 227 BCE.

Since Spartiates were full-time soldiers, manual labor fell to the Helot population who worked as unskilled serfs, tilling the Spartan land or accompanying the Spartan army as non-combatants. Helot women were often used as wet nurses.

Relations between Helots and their Spartan masters were often strained, and there is evidence that at least one Helot revolt occurred circa 465-460 BCE. Many historians argue that because the Helots were permitted such privileges as the maintenance of family and kinship groups and ownership of property, they were better able to retain their identity as a conquered people and thus were more effective at organizing rebellions. Over time, the Spartiate population continued to decline and the Helot population grew, and the imbalance in power exasperated tensions that already existed.

Spartan Women

Female Spartans enjoyed status, power, and respect that was unequaled in the rest of the classical world. The higher status of females in Spartan society started at birth. Unlike in Athens, Spartan girls were fed the same food as their brothers. Nor were they confined to their father’s house or prevented from exercising or getting fresh air. Spartan women even competed in sports. Most important, rather than being married at the age of 12 or 13, Spartan law forbade the marriage of a girl until she was in her late teens or early 20s. The reasons for delaying marriage were to ensure the birth of healthy children, but the effect was to spare Spartan women the hazards and lasting health damage associated with pregnancy among adolescents.

Spartan women, better fed from childhood and fit from exercise, stood a far better chance of reaching old age than their sisters in other Greek cities where the median life expectancy was 34.6 years, or roughly ten years below that of men. Unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore dresses (peplos) slit up the side to allow freer movement, and moved freely about the city, either walking or driving chariots.